ClassAction: Strategies for the first day in front of the class 

By Karen Herland

Janette Barrington (standing) prepares a group of professors for teaching at Concordia. Magnifying glass

Janette Barrington (standing) prepares a group of professors for teaching at Concordia.

First-day-at-school jitters are usually associated with students. But what if it’s your first time in front of the class? How can you set the tone, boundaries and atmosphere that will carry you through to December?

Anticipating that those who are preparing the lectures also have questions, Janette Barrington of the Centre for Teaching and Learning Services (CTLS), offered two short workshops on Aug. 17 — one at Loyola, the other at Sir George — called Preparing Your First Semester.

All together, over two-dozen people, some experienced professors but new to Concordia, shared concerns with Barrington. Those who participated represented a mix of disciplines, from the humanities to the hard sciences to engineering. Many who attended the workshop wanted to establish good communication with students and maintain their interest.

Barrington summed up her perspective simply. “Variety. If there is one principle you could leave with, that would be it.”

She peppered the presentation with strategies to respond to the participants’ concerns, basing her presentation on her own experience and James Lang’s On Course, one of several books available to help prepare for teaching. She suggested planning the three to five key points (both for the course and individual lectures) and sticking to them with examples.

Since students are shopping for courses early in the term, often basing their decision on the assignments and assessments, “don’t overload the course. Students should feel challenged, but they should also feel like the work is doable.”
Barrington led the Sir George session by modeling the practices she presented. She started on time, integrating stragglers into the process. “It is important to set the climate, otherwise your students will imagine they can show up late and not miss anything.” Similarly, she suggested introducing some material and activities on the first day instead of simply reviewing the course outline and finishing early.

Ollivier Dyens, Vice-Provost Teaching and Learning, has recently published a template for course outlines available through his office. Barrington points out, “it is really a course promise. It defines the content and the level of engagement expected.”

She also suggested ways to build in safety nets for students. A general call for questions about the material will rarely elicit a response. Barrington proposes asking more specific questions and giving students time to write a response, share it with another student and then report back. This builds student confidence as they refine their ideas.

Having students exchange notes with each other is also useful. “Students tend to take better notes if someone else will be reading them.”

Similarly, Barrington endorses multi-step assignments, where students are expected to submit smaller assignments leading to a major project.

“We know students stay up late and write the paper the day before it is due. Why not assign a draft?” By pacing student assignments over the term, the potential for plagiarism from carelessly cited work is greatly reduced.

This was the first in a series of workshops CTLS will be offering. For more information go to


Concordia University